After 9/11 and Fort Hood: The Anti-Muslim Backlash That Almost Never Happened

A strange rhythm reverberates through American society. Every few years or months, another mass shooting punctuates the national consciousness. Each massacre is like an aftershock of the last, a seismic tremor that immediately seems to foreshadow the next inevitable tragedy. Of course, the Fort Hood shooting stands apart. Here, the assailant's religion and motives, the non-civilian nature of the targets and it's connection to the Afghan War, mark off the shooting as belonging to that murky sub-genre of mass violence called terrorism.

After having been both victimized and turned into helpless spectators during 9/11, and since then, in a massive case of overcompensation, having borne the brunt of the military casualties in two wars, it would seem plausible that the United States would have fallen prey at home to a wave of anti-Muslim prejudice. Has this, in fact, occurred? The answers are complicated, as the real world has an annoying tendency of being. To begin with, Americans are far less biased against Muslims than almost any other Western nation. The Pew Global Attitudes Project, found in 2008 that the English speaking countries, the U.S. and Great Britain, at 23% of those polled, had lower levels of unfavorability towards Muslims than the nations of Continental Europe. By contrast, in Germany and Spain about 50% the population had a negative perception of their Muslim minorities.

Notably, the U.S. was the only country polled where public sentiment towards Muslims significantly improved since 2004. In other words, there was a backlash against Islam after the Al Qaeda attacks, but it fairly quickly died down. This is confirmed by evidence provided by Human Rights Watch, in a report ironically intended to prove the precise opposite. In the year following the September 11th hijackings, there was an unmistakable surge in hate crimes against Muslims and Arabs in America, from 28 the previous year to 481 in 2001. During that period, four murders, two by the same individual, can be attributed to the anti-Muslim backlash. Yet, the bulk of the violence took place in a window of just a few weeks after the theatrical demolition of the World Trade Center. Again, the same pattern emerged following the London bombings of July, 2005: a disturbing, but brief spate of racially motivated violence, followed by a return to the average trend.

In other words, the data from both international public polling, and from the number of hate crimes committed simply do not provide consistent support for the proposition that levels of terrorism correlate well with bigotry towards Muslims. Rather, the stronger correlation is with levels of racism towards minorities in general. Intriguingly, the same Pew survey indicated that, in broad terms, those nations with higher levels of anti-Muslim animus, are those where anti-Semitism still has prevalence. The lesson here is the moral of the 20th century, the one redeeming value that emerged from the ruins of the last global war: that an injury to one is an injury to all.

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